Friday, November 28, 2014

Anzac's monument

At the beginning of The Bridge. A Story of Men in Dispute, Merata Mita's alternately fesity and melancholy documentary about New Zealand's longest strike, Anzac Wallace ponders the islands of steel and concrete strewn across the Manukau harbour between the suburbs of Onehunga and Mangere. The half-finished bridge is 'hanging out there like a monument', Wallace thinks. It could be 'a modernist sculpture' called 'the Redundancy Bridge'. He wonders whether it will ever be finished.

Wallace was a gangster who made a fifteen year tour of New Zealand's prison system before he found a job with the carpentry crew on the Mangere bridge. When he and his militant co-workers were locked out by their employers, with the connivance of the Muldoon government, Wallace flourished as a picket line orator. Shortly after starring in Mita's film, he would play opposite Bruno Lawrence in Geoff Murphy's Utu, a revered depiction of racial feuding in nineteenth century New Zealand that might also be a parable for industrial relations in the turbulent first years of the 1980s.
Merata Mita's film deserves to be as famous as Utu, and the Mangere Bridge, which was eventually finished in 1983, after the workers had ended their two and a half year blockade, deserves to be considered one of New Zealand's great monuments. It was intended as a symbol of the nation's confidence and prosperity, a link between the burgeoning suburbs of South Auckland and their international airport and the city's central business district. It became a sign of the country's economic malaise and social divisions, and is happily invoked by right-wing politicians who like to scare their audiences with horror stories about hubristic trade unions.

This weekend Paul Janman and I and other members of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island will be giving two guided tours of the pedestrian underpass of the Mangere bridge, as part of our contribution to the Other Waters festival, which is designed to celebrate the history and aesthetics of Onehunga, Mangere, and the harbour that both links and separates them.

You can join us at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon, and at ten o'clock on Sunday morning, as we follow the underpass' modernist curve high above the harbour, push peeriscopes through convenient holes to get a view of the bridge's foundations, and examine a geocache filled with old texts - accounts of the epic strike, but also texts that document other neglected parts of local history. There are newspaper articles about subjects like opium deals and dens in Mangere, officials' attempts to make the old Mangere bridge a whites' only zone, and a raid on Onehunga's greengrocer by cops who were looking for Bolshevik literature rather than courgettes.

Ian Powell will be filming proceedings with one of his antique, suitcase-sized cameras.

Footnote: you can find GPS coordinates for the cache here, along with reports from searchers.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

War and peace: arguing with Chris Trotter and John Key

[John Key doesn't worry about anything, so I don't suppose he'll be fazed by the fact that many of this country's intellectuals have been twittering scornfully about his recent claim that New Zealand was 'settled peacefully' in the nineteenth century.* 

Key made his foray into historiography after being asked about the Waitangi Tribunal's recent report on Nga Puhi's Treaty claim. The Tribunal has decided that, when they signed on the dotted line in 1840, Nga Puhi chiefs did not believe they were giving away their sovereignty to the British Empire.

Chris Trotter is no friend of John Key but, as he explains in this blog post, he didn't join in the recent cries of derision on twitter. Chris believes that, by and large, the colonisation of New Zealand was remarkably peaceful. Over the years I've argued repeatedly - here, here, and here, at least - against Chris' interpretation of New Zealand's nineteenth century wars, so it's no surprise that I don't agree with his latest words on the subject. Here are some comments I left under his blog post.]

Hi Chris,
I appreciate the way you interrupt your analyses of quotidian political life to consider the deep history of our country. In twenty-first century New Zealand, it's rare to find a political commentator with such respect for the past. 
I have to disagree, though, with your interpretation of the motivations of the Maori signatories of the treaty, which seems to me to owe much less to the scholarship of our historians than it does to the press releases of Muriel Newman, John Ansell, and some of their friends on the far right of the political spectrum.
I agree with you that the Musket Wars devastated many iwi and redrew the map of the North Island.   But the notion that Maori turned to British power to help them end the Musket Wars ignores the fact that the wars had almost petered out by the 1830s, as iwi achieved military parity, as traditional methods of peacemaking achieved results (consider the peace that Te Wherowhero brokered between the iwi of the upper and middle North Island), and as Maori interpretations of Christian ideology spread. 
By the end of his life Hongi Hika, the chief had once led raiding parties of thousands across the country, had become a lonely anachronism, whose calls for new campaigns of plunder were scorned by younger Nga Puhi. When, in the middle of the 1830s, two northern Taranaki iwi decided to wage a war of conquest they found so few prospects in our two main islands that they had to sail off to the Chathams
Far from being exhausted by the Musket Wars, northern Maori showed that they were capable of stalemating an imported British army just a few years after 1840. 
There's also the difficult fact that, in 1840 and for many years afterwards, representatives of the British crown had almost no way of imposing their will on their fellow Pakeha, let alone Maori.
When Muriel Newman and her ilk claim that the Crown was able to step into the breach and prevent one iwi attacking another, and thereby prevent the supposedly imminent extinction of much of the Maori people, they are falsely imagining that the Hobson and his comrades possessed the resources of a modern state, like a standing army and a police force. All the British really had in 1840 was a printing press and the seal of their faraway monarch. 
I think Matthew Wright's book Guns and Utu gives a very credible picture of the balance of political and military forces in New Zealand at the end of the Musket Wars period. Wright ridicules the notion that the British had much agency in New Zealand in the early 1840s, but he also criticises ideas that anything like a unified Maori nation existed back then. Wright warns against a tendency to see the signatories of the Treaty, whether Maori or Pakeha, as far-sighted nation-builders rather than as small-time opportunists fixated on accumulating money and mana.
Another of Wright's arguments is relevant to this discussion. He points out that the Treaty of Waitangi cannot in any way be equated with the settling of New Zealand. In 1840 only a tiny number of Pakeha existed, and no Maori could have possibly imagined the tens of thousands who would arrive, courtesy of Wakefield and other impresarios of imperialism, later in the nineteenth century. 
But it seems to me that, while discussions about the signing of the Treaty are obviously interesting and important, they're not really relevant to John Key's claim that New Zealand was settled peacefully.
As the history of imperialism and the histories of the various parts of the Pacific show, there is an enormous difference between symbolic acts like running up a flag and making marks on an official document and the real work of settling new lands. 
Even if your interpretation of the Treaty were correct, then Key's claim would still be very problematic, because almost as soon as it began the settling of New Zealand provoked bloodshed. From the Wairau affray of 1843, which saw some of the first would-be settlers dying on the blades of Te Rauparaha's men, to the invasion of the Waikato by a British army controlled by Auckland property investors in 1863, to the shootout at Rua Kenana's headquarters in the Ureweras in 1916,
the attempts of Pakeha settlers to acquire, build on and farm land again and again provoked conflict.
It is battlefields like Rangiriri, Orakau and Te Porere, and not a few marks made on a piece of paper in 1840, that offer a verdict on Key's claim that these islands were settled peacefully.
You anticipate some of these criticisms, of course, by acknowledging the conflicts between Maori and the Crown, and by arguing that the death toll they produced was relatively modest.  
You say that thirty thousand Maori were killed or exiled as a result of the Musket Wars, and contrast that figure with the four thousand Maori and Pakeha who died in battles between Maori and the Crown between 1845 and 1872.  
I don't think that either of those figures sounds too inaccurate, and I don't doubt that more fighters died during the Musket Wars than in the conflicts between the Crown and iwi that followed the era of Hongi Hika. 
But it seems odd to me that you include the Maori exiled from their rohe by fighting when you give figures for the victims of the Musket Wars, but that you do not count the refugees from the wars between the Crown and iwi when you give figures for the victims of those wars.
After all, the wars in the Taranaki, the Waikato, and on the East Coast produced large numbers of refugees. Most of them were Maori, but more than a few were Pakeha.
A very large portion of the people of the Waikato were driven from their homes into the hills and gorges of the central North Island by the invasion of 1863. Many of them died in exile, or only returned after the making of peace two decades later.
The Waikato War also emptied a series of fledgling Pakeha villages and towns. Like Waikato civilians, Pakeha who fled the war often lost their possessions. After the town of Raglan was abandoned by settlers afraid of Maori attack, it was 'secured' by a garrison of drunken imperial soldiers who looted and burned its empty homes.
The conflict in the Taranaki famously sent hundreds of prisoners south to Lyttleton and Dunedin, and the war on the East Coast saw hundreds of members of iwi like Rongawhakaata and Ngati Porou ending up in places like Te Rohe Potae and the Coromandel.
I suspect that, in all, tens of thousands of people were displaced by the series of conflicts between the 1840s and 1870s.
You compare the average yearly death toll from the wars 1845 and 1872 with today's road toll, and suggest that these wars were fairly small-scale affairs. But such comparison can easily be misleading, because New Zealand's population is so much greater today than it was in the nineteenth century.
When the Waikato War, the largest of the conflicts between Maori and the Crown, was fought in 1863-64, New Zealand's total population was only about 170,000. Pakeha slightly outnumbered Maori. 
James Belich has pointed out that, in the context of such a small population, the Waikato War was a huge mobilisation of men and resources.
On Anzac Day, the appalling cost of World War One to New Zealand is often recalled. We lost sixteen thousand soldiers in pointless battles for the mud of Europe and Turkey, at a time when our total population was little more than a million.
But the fact that Maori suffered the same terribly high death rate during the Waikato War is seldom mentioned. Something like twelve hundred of their fighters died during 1863 and '64. When we consider such a loss together with the mass exile of civilians and the confiscation of three million acres by the Crown in 1865 we can begin to appreciate that, for the peoples of the Waikato and their allies, the war against the Pakeha was every bit as traumatic as the earlier clashes with Hongi Hika's musket-armed raiders. 

*I was honoured to see that several of Key's detractors had linked to old posts on this blog about colonialism and war, like my discussion of Peria, the utopian Maori settlement close to the site of present-day Hobbiton that was destroyed by the Pakeha Orcs who invaded the Waikato. I like to think of this blog as a sort of archive.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Towards the ancient future: three notes on Brett Graham's Uru

[This post is part of an ongoing series of pieces about Brett Graham - earlier installments can be found here and here.]

A dark pool

Titirangi's new art gallery has big windows filled with trees and sea. The gallery is called Te Uru, or the West, and its inaugural exhibition includes a sculpture by Brett Graham named Uru. Graham has turned a dark, ovate piece of beechwood - a warrior's shield, or a kava bowl, or the shell of a particularly large turtle - on its side, and attached it to a whitewashed wall. When we step close to the work, we notice the dozens of grooves that run to its smooth edges.

At the centre of Uru, where the cuts Graham has made converge, is a smudged circle of grey light. Sometimes the circle swells and brightens, so that Uru seems for a moment like a dark pool in which a spectral face is emerging.

Brett Graham's father Fred is famous for his attempts to introduce the high modernist minimalism of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to Maori art. In the 1960s and '70s, Graham snr erased many of the traditional decorative motifs from his sculptures, as he searched for the simplified 'essential forms' that Moore insisted were the true stuff of art.

The young Brett Graham rebelled against his father. He rediscovered the motifs Fred had eschewed, and left them in strange places. In his 2008 exhibition Campaign Rooms, Graham fantasised about a secret Maori weapons factory, and showed a stealth bomber with Tainui markings on its wings. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Graham explained works like this by arguing that his father had thrown away 'the baby with the bathwater' when he forsook the 'surface patterning' so important to classical Maori carving. The old patterns had to reemerge.
For his 2013 show Plot 150 Graham traced the bleakly geometric outlines of the series of redoubts British soldiers raised during their conquest of the Waikato Kingdom in the 1860s. Graham seemed to enjoy depicting these eroding, almost forgotten monuments of the British empire using the modernist style that was once so confidently exported from Europe to cultural colonies like New Zealand by men like Moore.

Lines and journeys

Uru, which was first shown in 2012, is another minimalist work, but its style belongs to the Pacific rather than to Europe. With its fluid, abstract, almost undifferentiated lines, the sculpture looks beyond the baroque patterning and careful symbolism of classical Maori carving to some of the earliest artworks made in Aotearoa.

The complexity and scale of the carvings we see on great waka and wharenui only became possible once humans had established large, permanent settlements in Aotearoa. Fed by big kumara gardens and patronised by chiefs, a caste of full-time carvers could prosper.

In the centuries before the creation of great centres of culture like Tamaki Makaurau and the middle Waikato, though, the ancestors of the Maori obsessively explored the eastern and southern regions of the Pacific, sailing from island to island and catching their meals in the sea and in forests. For these pioneers, social hierarchy and specialised labour were luxuries. Gaps between chiefs and commoners, and artists and non-artists, closed.

When they arrived here about a thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Maori quickly built villages along the coasts of both large islands, and dispatched expeditions to even remoter and colder parts of the Pacific, like the Chatham and Auckland islands. Some of them were stranded on the Chathams, and became Moriori.

The mobile, improvisatory people who discovered and settled Aotearoa left us artworks that are formally simple but astonishingly graceful. The lines of Uru recall the fluent paintings that early travellers made in the caves of Te Wai Pounamu, and the dancing figures on the trunks of the wind-bent kopi trees of the Chathams.
The simple forms of the ancient art of Aotearoa have always lingered, deep inside the elaborate carvings on pouwhenua and waka, in the same way that the simple meters of medieval English poets like Langland and Gower have always sounded behind the complex rhythms of Shakespeare. In the work of some contemporary Maori artists, the ancient forms irrupt into prominence. In Emare Karaka's massive, magnificent 1983 painting Planting, Searching, Rising: Taupiri is the Mountain, Waikato is the River, for example, the crouching or 'hocker' figure that recurs on the carved trees of the Chathams floats mysteriously over the sacred maunga of the Tainui people.

With its many lines travelling over a curved horizon, Uru alludes to ancient journeys across the Pacific, from the warm, safe lagoons of Polynesian strongholds like Tonga to the gales and frosts of the south and the vast barrier of South America in the far east.

The centre of Uru, where the sculpture's journey-lines end and begin, might represent Hawai'iki or its western Polynesian equivalent Pulotu: a paradise and underworld from which souls and ships depart, and to which they return. It might be Kawhia, the place where Brett Graham's ancestors buried their waka and raised the first Tainui village.

Towards the ancient future

Graham's sculpture evokes recent as well as distant journeys. Its grooves might remind us of the tracking lines that record the movements of ships and planes on computerised maps in coastguard stations and airport control towers. In his great essay 'Our Sea of Islands' Epeli Hau'ofa presented the Pacific Islanders who ride passenger jets above the tundra of Pacific clouds as successors to the navigators who discovered and populated lands like Aotearoa. For the author of Tales of the Tikongs, the journeys of islanders to jobs and schools in continents like Australia and the Americas were not evidence of dependency or decadence, but rather a reassertion of ancestral habits.

Hau'ofa is not the only writer to see the peoples who settled the Pacific as both ancient and futuristic. Karl Marx believed that the egalitarianism of the Pacific societies that relied upon fishing and hunting could offer lessons to a socialist Europe. Paul Theroux has compared the Polynesian explorers to the spaceship pilots of science fiction: both have crossed vast and dark distances by following stars. Today the lifeways of the ancient settlers of Eastern and outlier Polynesia are being studied by ecologists, who believe the societies that not only survived but burgeoned on tiny islands like Tikopia and Pukapuka offer lessons in sustainability and efficiency to the world of the twenty-first century.

Uru is both a minimal and vastly suggestive work. Once again, Brett Graham is looking backwards as well as forwards in time and in space.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Peeriscope, in theory and practice

While I was drinking coffee with Tongan artists in the Waikato, Paul Janman and the other members of the Fabrication Faction of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island spent the weekend in the perpetual gloom of the pedestrian underpass of the Mangere Bridge, where they are building a 'peeriscope' that will be offered to the public as part of the Other Waters exhibition.
Over at the Other Waters website, Paul has uploaded a detailed and enigmatic diagram of the peeriscope. He's also sent this me this guilt-inducing report on his labours:
Our Faction has been hard at work on the peeriscope...We are hoping to do the install early next Sunday morning. Our engineer Stefan will be abseiling off the bridge to attach the device and a friend will be recording events from a kayak in the harbour. I'm going to make a little film. A guided walk across the underpass and related events will be held the following weekend
If all goes well - if Stefan doesn't fall into the cold waters of the Manukau - then visitors to the underpass will be able to haul a geocache up from empty space between the bridge and the harbour, and examine a collection of artefacts of the epic strike that delayed the construction of Mangere's bridge for two and a half years at the end of the 1970s. 
Paul and I are collecting material for our cache, which will resemble the boxes we left up and down the Great South Road earlier this year. We're keen to hear from folks who were directly or indirectly involved in the great strike. We'll be visiting the small archives room at the Mangere Bridge public library this week to examine newspaper clippings, and hitting the Special Collections of the University of Auckland library to search the literary remains of Bill McAra and other New Zealand socialists who supported the striking construction workers. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, November 14, 2014

Taking it to the bridge

Like the Pink Floyd, CROSTOPI has been away for a while. Back in 2009 the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island published a manifesto on this blog; the same text turned up later in the little literary journal brief, and on the trunks of certain trees in the Auckland Domain.

Not everyone treated CROSTOPI seriously. One old friend ridiculed the notion that the text had been produced by a committee of real live human beings, rather than by an isolated individual. "Face it, Hamilton" the friend barked at me at one party, "you're a one man literary movement! Your CROSTOPI is the intellectual equivalent of the United Future Party! You're Peter Dunne without the hair!"

But CROSTOPI did attract some supporters. After reading the manifesto's denunciation of the notion of New Zealand as a 'clean, green paradise' inhabited by happy hobbit-folk, and its call for the opening of grubby 'quarantined' regions like Limestone Country and Takanini Strait to the imagination, Paul Janman contacted me and suggested we make a documentary movie about Auckland's Great South Road. Our movie hasn't made it to the screens, or even an editing suite, but it has gotten us involved in some interesting sideprojects, like an exhibition at the Papakura Art Gallery earlier this year. Out at Papakura we filled a table with artefacts from the history of the Great South Road, and hid more treasures in geocaches that we stashed in roadside landscapes. 

When Paul was asked to contribute to the Others Waters festival, which is designed to document and celebrate the history of Mangere Bridge and Onehunga, he decided to return to geocaching and to revive the name CROSTOPI. After creating a special 'Fabrication Faction' of the committee, which consists of an engineer, a welder, and two very enthusiastic children, he has begun (re)construction work on Mangere Bridge. 

Here's the statement that CROSTOPI has contributed to the catalogue for the Other Waters festival: 

With the help of abseiling engineers, CROSTOPI will install a periscope and geocache in the pedestrian underpass of Mangere's bridge. Besides providing mirror-assisted views of the bridge's foundations and surroundings, the installation will hold documents related to the two and a half year strike staged by the bridge's builders at the end of the 1970s. 

Like the anti-Springbok protesters and the occupiers of Bastion Point, Mangere's builders were confronting Rob Muldoon's National regime. For many Kiwis Mangere's unfinished bridge symbolised the breakdown in relationships - between employers and workers, between state and subjects, between the possible and the actual - common across New Zealand and the West during the revolutionary '70s. By occupying the bridge and setting up continuous pickets, the strikers proposed their own solution to this crisis. Like the occupiers of Bastion Point, they wanted sovereignty over their rohe. The strike eventually ended, and the bridge was finished. 

Standing on the underpass, listening to the endless rush of fixed capital, visitors are invited to ponder the miracle of collective labour.  

You can find out about the Other Waters festival here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, November 10, 2014

For and against Islamism: the West's hypocritical war in Iraq

[This is a comment I made during a recent facebook discussion about the endless war in Iraq.]

After condemning the violently sectarian politics of the Islamist outfit ISIS, John Key has announced that members of the New Zealand army will be sent to Baghdad to help train Iraq's army. It is hard to think of any gesture less likely to lead to the defeat of Islamism in the Middle East. 

Iraq's government is controlled, after all, by a collection of parties that practice Islamist politics. Where ISIS presents itself as the representative of Sunni Muslims, and kills or enslaves members of other religious groups, the Dawa Party and its allies in the Iraqi government present themselves as the representatives of Shi'a Muslims, and persecute Sunnis and others. Behind the Iraqi government stands Iran, which has been ruled by Shi'a Islamists for three and a half decades.

Dawa and the other Shi'a parties maintain their own militia, which they use to enforce their primitivist interpretation of Islam. Women who dress immodestly, shopkeepers who sell alcohol, and Christian who take communion have all been victims of the militia. The Iraqi army collapsed in the middle of this year, as ISIS conquered much of the north of the country. As troops deserted, they were replaced by members of the Shi'a militia. It is these men that Kiwis troops will be training.

In the name of fighting Islamism, then, John Key is sending New Zealand troops to support an Islamist government in Baghdad and train the armed thugs of this government. Like its American and Australian allies, New Zealand has made a de facto alliance with Shi'a fundamentalism and with the Iranian government.

Such an alliance is, of course, very ironic, because for decades America and most other Western nations have been enemies of the Iranian regime. America took the side of Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the 1980s, and in recent years it has imposed a range of sanctions on the country in an effort to stop Tehran developing nuclear weapons.

To understand why America and its allies have now aligned themselves with Iran, we have to consider the disastrous consequences of George Bush's invasion of Iraq.

When he sent troops across the Iraqi border in 2003, Bush talked about replacing Saddam Hussein with a secular government that would have no truck with Islamist politics. He wanted to create an ally of America in the heart of the Middle East, secure cheap access to the country's oil, and put the Islamist government of Iran under pressure.

But Bush's plan quickly failed, as Iraqis refused to support the pro-Western leaders he wanted to foist upon them. Protesters from Iraq's Sunni community took to the streets with guns. Desperate to find an ally against a resistance movement that was taking dozens of American lives every week, Bush turned to the Shi'a Islamists, and allowed them to take control of the Iraqi state. As America's influence in Iraq has declined, the influence of Iran has grown. Today Obama sees Iran and its allies in the Iraqi government as the only force that can stop ISIS.

But it is another force that is doing most of the fighting against ISIS. In both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, the Kurdish militia known as peshmerga have been defending towns and villages against ISIS's attacks. The Kurds live on the mountainous borderlands between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and have been fighting for independence from the governments of all of those countries for decades.

Unlike the gangs of thugs run by the Iraqi government, the Kurdish peshmerga are secularists. They have defended the Yezidi religious minority against ISIS; they have passed a law calling for the equality of men and women in the region of northern Syria they control. 

America has given some support to the Kurds fighting ISIS. American airplanes, for instance, have bombed ISIS troops besieging the Kurdish town of Kobane.

But America has helped prevent the most powerful of all the Kurdish armies, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, from joining the fight against ISIS.

The PKK is based in Turkey, and wants to send some of its thousands of fighters into Syria and Iraq, so that they can confront ISIS. But the Turkish government has bombed and shelled PKK to keep them from crossing the border. America and many other Western nations, including New Zealand, classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation. They have refused to speak out against Turkey's recent attacks on the PKK. Western governments oppose the PKK because they fear offending Turkey, which hosts important American military bases and is an important trading partner for Europe.

If John Key opposed violent sectarianism in Iraq, then he would not support the Islamist government in Baghdad. With its persecution of religious minorities and its roving militia, the Baghdad regime is a Shi'a mirror image of the Sunni ISIS. Key would look to the north of Iraq, and offer New Zealand support to the Kurdish peshmerga. Key would send New Zealand troops to work with the peshmerga, and would condemn Turkey for holding back the fight against ISIS by attacking the PKK.

Sadly, though, John Key is, like Helen Clark before him, more interested in keeping New Zealand on good terms with America than in helping deal with the problems of Iraq and the Middle East.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, November 07, 2014

The perils of reading

I have just been reading the United Nations' list of International Days, and have noted that two very important dates are fast approaching.

November the 19th is World Toilet Day; November the 20th is World Philosophy Day. I think that the United Nations' juxtaposition of the scatological and the epistemological is appropriate: as that dodgy Greek Diogenes acknowledged thousands of years ago, the art of thinking closely approximates the art of crapping.

If I have gotten rid of my hangovers from the shindigs on the 19th and the 20th of November, then I'll have to remember to celebrate International Day of the Bible on November the 24th. If a group of American evangelicals have their way, then the world's people will spend the 24th reading and discussing passages from the Old and New Testaments, in the sort of mass study session that Mao used to organise for fans of his Little Red Book.

I've never been a reliable churchgoer - I went nearly every week when I lived in Tonga last year, out of a mixture of loneliness, anthropological curiosity, and delight at hearing the singing and seeing the beautiful costumes of other worshippers, but I would switch denominations and venues constantly - and the Bible is, along with Joyce's Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, one of those great books that I have always chosen, out of a mixture of cowardice and laziness, to read as a collection of fragments.

Yet when my Christian friends talk about the perils and puzzles of Biblical exegeses and theological argument, though, I feel a certain affinity them, because I spent years opening and closing the sacred and profane books of Marxist theory. I'm not sure if any scholar of the Book of Revelations or the Kabbala can rival Althusser or Bordiga for either exegetical pedantry or eschatological fury.

Whether they are studying the Bible or Das Kapital or old bus timetables, scholars of texts have to struggle with and against the exasperating and wonderful capacity of words, sentences, and chapters to change their meanings. Every time a book is opened the words are the same, and yet different. New contexts and new readers scramble and reassemble their codes.

The International Day of the Bible is supposed to create peace and understanding; given the nature of reading, I think that is more likely to foster vociferous disagreement. Let me offer some doggerel, as an advance contribution to the event.

Three Poems for the International Day of the Bible

1. Surplus Value

When Marx died
his books rebelled.
Letters, words, chapters
in Das Kapital
tapped to one another
like prisoners
in adjacent cells.
They crawled across the page,
changed places
and shapes.
Money became yeoman,
bourgeoisie turned to embarkation,
surplus was succubus.

2. Note on Some Remarks on Early Martyrs of the Church, Illustrated by Woodcuts

Tissue paper on the engravings
like bandages:

the book is old
its wounds won't heal

3. Hermeneutics in Tonga

In the centre
of Palenapa's fale:
the Bible lies
under a long-handled
bush knife,
as if the Lord's word
were a whetstone.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, November 03, 2014

Marching and fighting

[My essay 'Marching and Fighting in the Friendly Islands' was a runner-up in this year's Landfall Essay Competition, and has been published in the latest, 228th issue of New Zealand's oldest surviving cultural journal. The essay was my attempt to understand the school-on-school violence that troubled Tongatapu last year, and sometime made parts of the island's only city feel like a riot zone. 

Here are some excerpts from my essay, along with some photographs I took while I was researching it. Buy Landfall 228 and get the full text, as well as the work of the other finalists in this year's competition.]

Every year students from the schools of Tongatapu assemble in Nuku’alofa, and march through the centre of the city to the Tongan royal palace and the country's parliament. After wandering down to Taufa’ahau Road to join the crowds celebrating School Parade Day, I was confronted by the Liahona High School brass marching band.

Liahona is a village in the centre of Tongatapu that is famous for its emormous Mormon temple, which comes complete with a faux-gold steeple, and for the large SPEAK ENGLISH ONLY PLEASE signs that are nailed to its bus stop. The Mormons are regularly accused of wanting to turn Tonga into a replica of that latter-day Zion, Salt Lake City. Fifteen thousand Mormon converts from the Friendly Islands have settled in the capital of Utah, with the assistance of the American church, and wags insist that the green colour of the Liahona school flag and uniform is a reference to the green card that all Tongan Mormons allegedly covet.

The band I encountered on Taufa’ahau Road took their inspiration not from the staid streets of Salt Lake City but from the vulgar and lively city of New Orleans. Led by a young man wearing a gold crown and the sort of white and gold suit that James Brown appropriated from southern Baptist preachers fifty years ago, the Mormons alternated fusillades of jazz with casually synchronised dance moves. They might have line stepped off the set of Treme, David Simon’s post-Katrina tele-portrait of New Orleans’ embattled but joyous dancers and singers. 
The Mormons were followed down Taufa’ahau Road by members of the Anglican St Andrews school, who carried a Scottish flag and thumped on outsized drums. The Anglicans had chosen austere blue uniforms, but students of Apifo’ou College, the huge Catholic institution on Nuku’alofa’s swampy eastern margins, showed off reds and oranges and were led by a young man twirling a rainbow-coloured cane.

As school after school marched past I remembered a recent suggestion by Lose Miller-Helu, who was one of my colleagues at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a doggedly liberal little school on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa. Lose believed that ‘Atenisi should send a detachment to the parade. “The whole of Tongatapu will be there” she had told one of our staff meetings. “People will notice. We could beat on drums, one of the students could blow a flute, we could all dress up, and march in lines…”

When I asked them, though, ‘Atenisi’s students were unimpressed by the prospect of becoming footsoldiers in Lose’s army.

“That parade is very tiresome”, Tevita Manu’atu had said, looking up from the volume of Nietzsche he was reading in a corner of the classroom and scratching his Afro. “You’ll think it’s impressive because you will not have seen it before. But every year is the same. The same banners, uniforms, slogans. No change. No development.”  Other students simply laughed or sniggered when I asked for volunteers for a march down Taufa’ahau Road. 
A day or so later, at one of the gatherings where ‘Atenisians drink kava, gossip, sing Tongan poems, and argue about subjects like pre-Socratic philosophy and local politics, the poet and dramaturge Murray Edmond, who was visiting our institution, tried to reconcile Lose’s and Tevita’s positions. “Think of it in a Zen way” he urged. “You’re participating by not participating. You make your contribution by being absent.”

Now that I was watching the parade I was pleased that ‘Atenisi hadn’t attempted to join it. How could we compete with the dance moves and jazz solos of the Mormons, or the sartorial splendour of those Catholic schoolboys?

The crowd that stood on the pavements of Taufa’ahau Road – thick concrete pavements laid a couple of years ago, by the Chinese coolies imported to rebuild downtown Nuku’alofa after the riot of 2006, but already cracked and tilted – was applauding loudly, but many of the marchers appeared both solemn and subdued. An hour or so later, as I walked westward towards the ‘Atenisi campus, I saw handfuls of them waiting for buses in the shade of coconut trees that craned their necks curiously over the iron fences of Nuku’alofa’s suburban front yards. A Liahona student had thrown his puffy white hat onto the roadside dust; a tuba sat, snout-down, in the lap of a yawning classmate. An inmate of Lavengamalie, the school of the fissiparous, wildly Pentecostal Tokaikolo Fellowship, was pulling at the brass buttons of his waistcoat, loosening his tie, and sucking in the hot afternoon air.

Looking at these handsomely and uncomfortably dressed young men, I remembered a story that a senior New Zealand trade unionist told me about a journey he had made to Cuba. Not content with wearing a T shirt adorned by Che Guevara’s glare, the trade unionist had gotten a tattoo of Che on an intimate part of his body. When he was finally able to visit the nation he admired, he took the opportunity of joining a huge march held to celebrate May Day.

As they stomped through downtown Havana the marchers chanted slogans against imperialism and for socialism, and waved placards decorated with portraits of Che and Fidel Castro. Walking home after the march, though, the Kiwi friend of the Cuban revolution noticed hundreds of abandoned placards. Once they had appeased party bosses by performing their annual ritual, the marchers had dumped Che and Fidel into the nearest gutter. I wondered whether the student paraders of Nuku’alofa were motivated by the same sort of dull duty as the reluctant marchers of Havana.

Back at ‘Atenisi I found Tevita Manu’atu lying on a long bench in the sun, reading Facebook rather than philosophy. When I offered him my theory about the motives of the school marchers, Tevita recovered his Nietzschean querulousness. “They have passion for their school, but they show it in their own way” he insisted. “They show it by fighting. Go downtown late on Friday night – you’ll see students from different schools facing off, fighting. They use fists, but sometimes also bush knives. Sometimes petrol bombs get thrown.”...

A month or so after School Parades Day fighting between Tongan schoolboys made the news in Australia and New Zealand, and kicked off a tearful public debate in the Friendly Islands.

Tupou College and Tonga College are the country’s two oldest and most prestigious schools. They also have a long history of warring. One night in June, in revenge for some previous act of violence, hundreds of Tupou College students piled into a truck and other vehicles and descended on the home of a Tonga College student in Ma’ufanga, an eastern suburb of Nuku’alofa. By the end of the evening one hundred and fifty Tonga College students were in hospital, and one hundred and fifty Tupou College students had been stuffed into the cells of Nuku’alofa’s central police station. 

The principals of both schools were soon crying and praying on television, and Tonga’s Police Commissioner, a grave, gaunt palangi mysteriously transferred from his beat in New Zealand, told a radio station that his force could not solve the problem of schoolboy warfare. Letter writers to Tonga’s newspapers called for the closure of both Tupou and Tonga colleges.

A week after the riot in Ma'ufanga ‘Atenisi held a kava session in honour of the veteran Pacific journalist Tony Haas, who was keen to talk about the problems of the Friendly Islands. Between downing cups of the sacred brown liquid and singing – or, in my case, uncertainly humming – the poems of Queen Salote, we discussed Tonga’s schoolboy wars.

Tevita Manu’atu was in no doubt about the cause of the latest violence. He pointed out that the rivalry between Tupou and Tonga colleges went back to the 1880s, when King Tupou I had founded the Free Wesleyan Church to free his country from what he considered the imperialist influence of the London-based international Methodist movement. Tupou’s mentor was Shirley Baker, a former Methodist missionary turned Tongan nationalist, and Baker’s great enemy was John Moulton, an ‘orthodox’ Methodist who opposed the establishment of the Free Wesleyan church and maintained close relations with the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. 
Encouraged by Moulton, thousands of Tongans refused to join the new church; these dissidents, who became known as the fakaongo, suffered imprisonment and beatings. One night in 1887 a band of Moulton’s disciples tried to assassinate Shirley Baker as he rode his horse along Nuku’alofa’s waterfront. Baker dodged the bullets, but hundreds of fakaongo were exiled to a small Fijian island. Eventually the outcasts were recalled to Tonga, and allowed to form their own Church of Tonga.

While Tupou College is run by the Free Wesleyan Church, Tonga College is a government school, and has always been hospitable to students from Church of Tonga families. Tevita Manu’atu sees the recent battles between the students of the two schools as a recurrence of the struggles of the 1880s. “They’ve fought each other ever since then” he said, “and they’re not going to stop”. 
Maikolo Horowitz, a long-time staff member at the ‘Atenisi Institute, had a different perspective on the schoolboy warfare. “Has anyone noticed”, he asked the kava circle, “that only the Protestant schools are at war? Apifo’ou College has no problems with violence. The Catholics don’t fight.”

Maikolo grew up in a Jewish section of New York City with a kabbalist father and a Trotskyist mother, and has always been interested in the sociology of religion. He discussed Emile Durkheim’s famous contrast between the high suicide rate in Protestant northern Europe and the relatively low rate in Catholic southern Europe. “Protestants are tightly wound” Maikolo insisted. “The Protestant internalises violence through repression and then externalises it.”

The Tongan-Waikato sculptor and scholar Visesio Siasau could not accept Maikolo’s dichotomy. Visesio grew up in an intensely Catholic family, and attended Apifo’ou College, but has begun to create astonishing artworks which juxtapose and sometimes fuse the symbols of Christianity with the imagery of traditional Tongan religion. He has shown the ancient artisan-God Tangaloa Tufunga writhing on a cross, and Hiku’leo, the overseer of Pulotu, the Tongan land of the dead, befriending Mary and Joseph. 
“Catholicism works subtly” Visesio said, “but its doctrine is more powerful because of its subtlety. It is a total system, a total view of the world, totalitarian”. Visesio could not see Tonga’s Catholic minority, which has been excluded from power by the Tupou dynasty and helped to found the pro-democracy movement in the 1980s and ‘90s, as a bastion of liberalism and pluralism. His syncretic artworks, with their implicit appeal for religious tolerance, have not always delighted his family.

Visesio wondered whether Tonga’s warlike schoolboys weren’t simply aping the behaviour of their elders. “There is violence at every level of Tongan education” he said. “Teachers beat senior students. Senior students, prefects, beat younger students. This is all legal, legal and expected. Is it any surprise students go out and fight their peers?”

‘Opeti Taliai, the Dean of ‘Atenisi, didn’t disagree with Visesio, but cited boredom as an additional reason for schoolboy warfare. “These schools are stuck out in the countryside” he pointed out. “These boys sit in the bush without any stimulus. They aren’t taught how to use their minds. They don’t read, think.” ‘Opeti noted that old boys of many schools are involved in the violence. “They finish school and go back to their villages and have nothing to do” he said. “They can’t take part in the agricultural economy, either because they don’t have the skills or because of a lack of land. They are surplus labour. They find it hard to marry. Their school is what they have.”

‘Opeti’s comments made me think of the role that the geography of Tonga’s largest island might play in its social problems.

From the air, Tongatapu looks like a small place. As they fold their trays and click their seatbelts, passengers on incoming jets can glance out their windows and take in the whole island, from the beach-lined curve of Hihifo peninsula in the far west to the sun-struck rooves of Nuku’alofa in the north to the big plantations of the southeast. With its flat fields of crops framed by coconut trees as straight and pale as the pillars of Greek temples, the island looks both orderly and inviting.

On the ground, though, Tongatapu is more complicated. The smoothest and widest road in Tonga connects the airport, in the southeast corner of the island, with Nuku’alofa. Paved roads strike out hopefully from the airport route, only to decline, in a few metres or kilometres, into muddy tracks shelled by coconuts and tormented by sharp turns. The plantations that looked like tracts of savannah from the air turn out to be tangles of chest-high tapioca or vanilla. Creepers studded with thorns and thistles guard ancient sunken pathways between the fields. The traveller’s eye looks for relief toward the horizon, with its empty stretches of ocean, but is blocked by those walls of coconut trees. 
Unlike rural New Zealanders, with their penchant for isolated farmhouses and lifestyle blocks, Tongans countryfolk live together in tight little villages. Only outcasts, madmen, and the odd palangi hermit live in the stretches of bush that lie like a sea between official settlements.

The broken roads, claustrophobic fields, and uninhabited zones of the Tongatapu countryside can make visitors very lonely very quickly.

With its English-speaking population, its colonies of Chinese and palangi, its cafes, bars, and supermarkets, Nuku’alofa is a place apart from the rest of Tongatapu. Some Nuku’alofans refer to the inhabitants of the villages beyond their town as ‘fakapoule’, or the ‘the unenlightened ones’. Many wealthier Nuku’alofans are more familiar with Sydney and Auckland than with the outer villages of their own island. The self-consciously modern village of Liahona is an exception to the rule of the countryside. 

The riot that destroyed a third of downtown Nuku’alofa in 2006 was blamed on Tonga’s pro-democracy movement, but it was teenagers from Tongatapu’s remote villages who did much of the burning and looting. ‘Iliasa Helu, the son of ‘Atenisi’s late founder Futa Helu and the keeper of the institution’s library, told me that he saw cars speeding up and down Taufa’ahau Road, through the smoke from the ruins of Chinese-owned stores and the city’s cinema. “They were opening their doors and leaning out the windows and shouting at us” ‘Iliasa remembered. “They were shouting ‘The capital will return to Lapaha!”

Built on the shore of Fanga’uta lagoon in the east of Tongatapu, Lapaha was the seat of the ancient Tu’i Tonga dynasty, which dominated the country until being pushed aside by Tupou I in the nineteenth century. Today Lapaha is a village of overgrown stone monuments and dried-up moats, whose Catholic inhabitants complain of neglect at the hands of Tonga’s establishment. For some of these marginalised Tongans, the 2006 riot was a chance for revenge.

Some Nuku’alofans have seen the recent schoolboy riot in Ma’ufanga as another invasion from the countryside, and another hint of the future. The uniformed young men and women who strode so smartly through Nuku’alofa on School Parade Day may return, in different dress, to conquer the city. 
I drove out to Tupou College one warm afternoon with ‘Opeti Taliai and the Kiwi architect Andrew Alcorn, who was looking for an antique fale-church – a dome of light, handcut logs lashed together with thousands of coconut fibres – which had stood on Mount Zion, the Nuku’alofa fort that had been the besieged stronghold of Christianity on Tongatapu, before being moved somewhere inland. We turned off the road around Fanga’uta, the shallow muddy lagoon that takes a bite out of northern Tongatapu, and drove south, into the centre of the island, past fields filled with burning elephant grass. 

A great circle of wooden cottages radiated from a concrete office block on which a hermit crab, the emblem of Tupou College, had been painted in blue. The cottages belonged to teachers, ‘Opeti explained: staff, as well as students, are obliged to live on this remote campus. The Dean of ‘Atenisi gestured at a large concrete house that sat on a grassy mound. “That mound was built a long time ago, for the fale of a local chief” he said. “It’s a sign of status. They’ve built the headmaster’s house there.”

The students lived and studied in a complex of rectangular, low-rooved buildings behind the office. Further back still was a wall of coconut trunks. “There’s a big plantation out there” ‘Opeti said. “It goes all the way to the airport. The students grow a lot of food. The school tries to be self-sufficient.” 
As we walked across the campus, searching for the curving walls of the Mount Zion fale, ‘Opeti pointed at the wire grill fitted tightly across a window. Faces smiled through the wire, and somewhere behind them a deep, bush preacher’s voice recited a series of prime numbers so slowly and reverently that it might have been reading the Lord’s Prayer. “I’m afraid they’ll grab us and put us in the Tupou uniform”, ‘Opeti whispered.

An unsmiling teacher wearing a blue tupenu, a white shirt, and a blue tie eventually emerged from the office to tell us that the fale from Mount Zion stood on the other side of the island, in the grounds of the Wesleyan theological college. ‘Opeti asked him whether we might make a short presentation to any senior students who were not in class. “They might like to know about ‘Atenisi, in case they’d like to study there next year” he explained. The teacher, who still hadn’t introduced himself, produced a tiny key, unlocked a large metal door, and ushered us into a dim room filled with rectangular tables. We stood in the gloom and waited, until half a dozen students filed in, smiling tightly. They were wearing blue tupenu and white shirts, but they lacked ties.

‘Opeti spoke to the students in Tongan. I sat down on a stool and listened hard, but could only understand his introduction and the occasional palangi proper noun: Heraclitus, Kant, Hegel. The students listened mutely. 

Shortly after ‘Opeti dropped the mysterious name Heidegger, a rat ran across the floor towards me, skipped over my feet, which had not had time to recoil, and disappeared through a fist-sized piece of rust in the bottom of the door. When we were back outside, in the bright and suddenly comforting afternoon light, I told ‘Opeti and Andrew about the rodent. ‘Opeti, who grew up in the Tongatapu countryside, began to laugh. “What did you expect it to do?” he asked. “Did you think it was going to raise a paw, and ask to go to the bathroom?”

...Before I can ask any more questions a bell rings.  A fat man is standing under the administration building’s hermit crab, waving his hands. Without looking at me, the students hurry off in his direction. “They probably have work duties” ‘Opeti tells me, as I walk back towards his car. “Lots of work in that plantation. We should get back to town.”

We drove back through the circle of teachers’ homes, down the long road to the lagoon.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]